The primal, terrifying, and damaging power of fire is no stranger to Disney animation. It’s not difficult to remember the scene where Bambi’s mom is killed by an unseen hunter, but Bambi climaxes with a massive fire that lays waste to the forest that was once so serene, lush, colorful, and inviting to a young buck. Similarly, the climactic moment of the final sequence of the underrated Fantasia 2000, scored to Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” depicts the lava-fueled fire from a previously dormant volcano destroying all in its path, including the spritely figure that caused the land nearby to come to life with lush greenery. There are more examples–such as the climax of The Lion King–that could be cited here, but the point is this: Disney animation has not shied away from showing kids and adults alike what fire can do and how scary it is. These films’ finales excel primarily because they don’t condescend to the crowd, or aim to please only children.
But now, we have Planes: Fire and Rescue, which moves closer to the ground to the so-called “World of Cars” than its predecessor did. Like Bambi and The Lion King and Fantasia 2000, this unnecessary sequel to last year’s Planes isn’t meant to shy away from the unquenchable and unstoppable nature of fire. Unfortunately, this is a film that’s so squarely content at being a movie just for kids, instead of appealing to a more universal crowd, that it never rises above the dull and uninspired. Our boyish hero, Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), is living large after winning a worldwide race in the first film, a star nearly as famous as one Lightning McQueen. Soon, though, Dusty’s gear box malfunctions so badly, he can no longer fly fast enough to race, lest he crash and burn. Mere minutes later, he inadvertently causes an accidental fire that gets his little town of Radiator Springs–er, Propwash Junction shut down by a fire official. Thus, he decides to get certified as a firefighting crop-duster to revive both his town’s honor and his own.
Once Dusty leaves Propwash Junction–in a shot that features a background so flat- and fake-looking, it might as well be the blue-sky painting that Truman Burbank’s sailboat runs into at the end of The Truman Show–he teams up with a group of firefighting planes led by a grizzled, wise veteran with a dark past (Ed Harris, in the Paul Newman role). Plus, he’s making friends with a Native American plane (Wes Studi), a plane who harbors a big crush on him (Julie Bowen), and even his grumpy mentor Blade Ranger. (Yes, really. Ed Harris plays a character named Blade Ranger in this movie. Also, yes, apparently, there are Native Americans in the world of anthropomorphic planes. And they speak in faux-mystical gibberish here too!) The main conflict, then, comes from a nearby hotelier (John Michael Higgins), who refuses to acknowledge the massive forest fire near his luxury lodge on the eve of its grand opening. Of course, he can’t acknowledge the fire, because then the movie would just be called Planes: Fire. And who would want to see a movie like that?
On one hand, this much is true: Planes: Fire and Rescue is not as bad as Planes, simply because it does not have a single scene as misguided and offensive as the scene in the 2013 film in which we discover that Dusty’s grizzled mentor flew in the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II and inadvertently led his cadets into a fiery death. Dusty’s new grizzled mentor also has a tragic past, but it mostly involves a parody of, for some reason, the cheesy cop show CHiPs. (It’s the small victories in life you have to cherish.) While Fire and Rescue is not as terrible as its predecessor, it’s still a maddeningly pedestrian, forgettable film that’s designed to distract children for a couple of hours while their parents bask in the central air conditioning of their local multiplex. Planes: Fire and Rescue has a decent enough moral, too, but a) it’s the same general message the lead character learned (and apparently forgot) last year and b) it’s a moral you can teach your kids in 5 minutes on the ride home from school.
Planes: Fire and Rescue, like its predecessor, is a lazy film. It has a noble enough conscience, though a movie that opens with a dedication to human firefighters before indulging in wince-inducing sex and fart humor maybe doesn’t have its heart entirely in the right place. The animation is acceptable, but nowhere near as photorealistic or visually striking as anything from the Pixar universe. The voice work is generally serviceable (though Studi comes awful close to just doing a riff on his Sphinx from Mystery Men), and the story is predictable down to a T. Those few moments of near-inspiration, as when we see a video cover for a movie presented by “George Lexus” called Howard the Truck, are negated by the rest of this drab affair. No doubt, there will be more Planes movies; if we’re lucky, by the tenth installment, they might actually be halfway decent.